In this journal:
- famous bare-wood houses;
- I was judged base on my skin;
- a gigantic sign of euro.
I sail across the wine-colored sea, towards folks of other tongues.Odyssey, Homer
Heppenheim, Star of Bergstraße
I stepped off my train onto the platform of Heppenheim, a town so small that most Germans have no idea what this place is even about. There were nothing at the station, no bus terminal, no taxi stand, no confession stops, or even a place to hide from the elements. The only thing that it needed was a few tumbleweeds hurling themselves across my vision, then that would be perfect. I walked down the deserted streets, onto the main thoroughfare of the village, Friedrichstraße, normally full of stores and cafes. However, this Sunday afternoon in January was not particularly big on sales, as not one single store was open. I continued to my Airbnb host’s place, and greeted the owner.
The host, a middle-aged lady, was shocked when she saw me. She did not expect to see someone who was not German to actually be in her hometown, as she later described that nearly 90% of the people who came to stay in her property were businessmen trying to get a lodging that would not exceed 400 Euros a night for conferences in Darmstadt, 30 minutes by train from Heppenheim. Moreover, she was scared that because of my Asian looks, I migth have brought the virus from China, as the news was just beginning to pick up. I had to patiently explain to her that I had been outside China for more than 2 weeks, and when I left Shanghai, which is as far from Wuhan as Heppenheim to Romania, the virus was not yet spreading in any significant manner. Eventually, my Canadian passport calmed her down, and I was welcomed with renewed German hospitality. After narrowly avoiding being homeless in a place with barely a bench to sleep on, I continued down to the most famous sights of this quaint village.
The most famous place of Heppenheim is Marktplatz, the market square. It is surrounded by buildings of pristine shape, dating from the very end of 17th century. This is because the entire town was destroyed during Nine Years’ War that terminated in 1693, and every house was rebuilt with the famous half-timbered frame style. This is a style that has been widely in use since middle ages, but these elaborately exposed frames create not only structural integrity but also aesthetic supriority. The town hall, the building with the large clocktower at the top, is one of the best-looking timbered houses I have ever seen.
The town managed to not be touched by the bombs and fightings of World War II, which spelled doom for many historical villages in Germany. However, that does not mean there are no ignoble spots in Heppenheim during those dark ages. This village has seen a significant Jewish population since 8th century, and by the time Nazi party took power, all 29 Jewish families still living in town had their fate sealed. The synagogue was destroyed in 1938, and the most famous Jewish resident, Martin Buber, a philosphy professor who used to work for Frankfurt University, had his entire 30000-book collection dragged out and burned. Now, only a faint mark remembers the old perimeter of the synagogue. Heppenheim was also used as a site for two different concentration camps, which trapped so many labored souls.
Nowadays, Heppenheim is mostly a summer vacation spot for nearby city folks in the know. Thanks to its authentic old town, large castle on the top of a hill, and world-class vineyards, Heppenheim is proclaimed as the jewel of Bergstraße, which is a long tourist route that goes from Stuttgart to Frankfurt that connects many castles along the way. And the town Catholic Parish church, St. Peter’s, is claimed to be the Cathedral of Bergstraße.
After walking around the old town, I decided to take a little hike around the little hill that has been looming above my head the entire day: Schloßberg. It is what gives this town a status on the Bergstraße, the Castle Route, because an old castle from medieval times sits at the peak of this bump on the Earth’s surface. I crossed the limits of the old town as I walked by the very few remnants of the city wall that was demolished in 19th century, and began ascending the steep hiking trails that lead towards the top.
This little mountain is actually the smallest wine region in Germany, as only one side of this hill is used to produce the local wine, which has gained a special status for its heritage and historical values. This is because the local winery owners had to fight hard to preserve the status of these places as industrialization threatened to turn the hillsides into residential buildings, and more recently, scenic hotels thanks to the influx of tourists. Additionally, growing wine here on the slopes is extremely difficult, as water sources are hard to reach, and carrying everything up and down these steep hillside paths, from soil to seeds, all the way to the finished grapes, is not exactly the easiest task. As a result, the only way for Heppenheim Schloßberg wine to beat its competition was not on price or quantity, but in quality and fame.
It is almost trivial to point out that the view was simply fantastic. Even though it was the dead of winter, and there were so few people out and about, I could vividly imagine the greenery of the grape vines under the summer sun, or the orange sunset at the horizons reflecting off the riping fruits. I now understand why so many perfer to spend their vacation days here, because with such a large slope of vines, a castle behind, and a classical cathedral that comes straight from 15th century, it is hard to imagine anywhere else better! I eventually reached the peak of the mountain, where I took a close look at the castle, Starkenberg.
The castle was abandoned a few centuries ago, and was recently renovated to update a gate tower, the old stables, and a few other small connected sections, to be turned into a youth hostel. Yes, now, it is actually a hostel where local teens and youngsters can sleep in for merely 20 euros a night. I have always wanted to book this place, yet sadly it is only open in summer, and the fact that it is on top of the mountain does not help either. Since I did not have a car, I would have to carry myself and the bag all the way across town from the train station, and up the mountains, and back down again when I leave. Yikes, there is really something called too much cardio!
Frankfurt am Main
After spending 2 days in the village, I continued to the very last stop of the entire trip, Frankfurt. Nearly everyone and their mother knows about this shining beacon of western Germany, as it has practically usurped Berlin’s lead in a lot of sectors due to the political turmoils that did not end until 1990. While Berlin was still busy recovering, Frankfurt was practically flying. Now, it is the fifth largest city in the country, as well as the economic and technological center of the entire Germany, if not for the entire continental Europe. Now, I can finally say I hav been to all 8 largest cities in Germany. (They are: Berlin, Hamburg, Munich, Cologne, Frankfurt, Stuttgart, Dusseldorf, and Dortmund)
The city has the most bank headquarters in the nation, as well as offices of virtually every single top 500 companies in the world. Frankfurt also has the largest internet exchange point in the entire world, handling a significant portion of the world internet connections. As a result, fintech and startups are right at home here in the invisible center of the world. Additionally, after UK’s departure from the club, the geographical center of European Union falls right in the jurisdiction of the city, making Frankfurt nearly the literal center of Europe. Moreover, it is hard for me to put down the bias as a frequent flier, when Europe’s largest legacy airline, as well as the German national carrier, Luftansa, had flown me to and fro this familiar airport for years.
I only spent two days here, so I will keep my journal equally short. This is Römerberg, the historic center of the city. The name literally translates to Roman Mountain. The most important building in the city, the City Hall called Römer is on the plaza, which had witnessed nearly 600 years of coronations, parties, festivals and Christmas markets. The name has nothing to do with the Romans, as they are long gone by the time modern Frankfurt took shape; instead, the house was owned by the Römer family before being sold off to the city administration in 1405, which subsequently used the house as the city hall, all the way until present time.
However, do not be fooled by the square that has now been overtaken by tourists, nearly all of these old houses that have “exposed timbers” are fake, reconstructed in the past decade to fool those who simply want a bigger Instagram follower count. (And you can find me on Instagram @beyounged, see you there! ;P ) This is because old town of Frankfurt, the biggest classic Gothic town at the time, was practically annihilated entirely during the war, and just one bombing session took nearly 1000 timber houses out of existence in a day. It took them decades to painstakingly recreate every single detail of the old houses from photographs and paintings. Unlike Heppenheim, whose houses are about 700 years old, most of these houses you see here are 7 years tops, some as young as 2 years old!
Just a few steps from the plaza, sits another city mark that fell victim to the war, Frunkfurt Cathedral. It was the place where Holy Roman Emperors were elected as the kings of Germany for 400 years, and where coronation of the kings took place for 200 years. Interestingly, despite the fact that this was practically the most important church in the entire region for centuries, the English description of this church is a misnomer. It has never been a cathedral, as it has been a kaiserdom, imperial church for the entire time. It was also badly damaged in WWII, and was not completely restored until 1990, when Rihanna turned 2.
I also took a little walk on the only walking bridge that spans Main River, Eiserner Steg, literally meaning “iron footbridge”. It was first constructed in 1868, and destroyed by the Nazi forces as they retreated from the city to prevent quick advances of the allied forces. Now, it is mostly a place for lovers to do their stupid traditions of polluting rivers with tossed keys wherever they go. However, few managed to notice the Greek inscription on the top, which is a quote from Homer’s Odyssey:”ΠΛΕΩΝ ΕΠΙ ΟΙΝΟΠΑ ΠΟΝΤΟΝ ΕΠ ΑΛΛΟΘΡΟΟΥΣ ΑΝΘΡΩΠΟΥΣ”, which roughly translates to “I sail across the wine-colored sea, towards folks of other tongues.”
I hopped onto my flight departing from Frankfurt airport, effectively ending this EuroHop trip, the longest one I have ever embarked on. I looked out of the window, as my Condor 767 slowly pushed back beside a Thai A380, and fell into a trance. My life has infinite potentials, a lack of definition, because I refuse to be categorized into a group, a subspecies, a shackle made of names. I am me, Young, a unique person, just like everyone else. I am no data point, but an actual spirit alive and free. I roam around this world, looking for confirmation and reassurance, and the very basics of what it means to be alive.
In theoretical physics, the cosmological constant is an inherent nature of the empty space. It is the energy that exists in places where there is nothing: a fundamental lowest form of energy. It is the something of nothing, and now, I have found it. In this journey, I have encountered so much, from a bizarre Chinese buffet in Portugal, the ancient colosseum in Rome, mythological sea walls of Dubrovnik, largest Christmas tree in Dortmund, a medieval time travel in Cologne, holiday gambling in Netherlands, crossing the Berlin Wall, lakeside respite in Swizterland, old plaza of kings in Stuttgart, hidden alleyways of Heidelberg, and all the way to the timbered-houses of Heppenheim. I realized, there is a fundamental basics when it comes to existence: the very fact that you are existing itself. If even vacuum can have a form of energy, then just being who I am has to have a meaning. I searched far and wide, looking for a reason to exist, yet at the end of the road, I found out that I was looking for fortune, when I was already standing on a pillar made of blessings.
Thank you, for accompanying me through thick and thin, and I hope, we shall meet again. The universe may not have many constants, but I am sure, our reunion, is foretold in the cosmological laws. Through the fundamental forces, we shall collide and merge again, into a singularity, sometime soon in the future.